MAY 4, 2021
KEEMA WATERFIELD ROLLS through life with a natural grace, not because she’s had it easy but because she hasn’t. She was born in a trailer in Alaska — during a party — to a 20-year-old mother and lived some of her childhood in tents and buses, often without heat or a flushing toilet. Waterfield’s debut memoir, Inside Passage, is a mother-daughter love story of resilience and forgiveness that offers readers an escape to the Last Frontier. Hope, wit, and candor are the methods of transport.
Waterfield moved through her childhood riding ferries up and down Alaska’s Inside Passage, pinging between Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Haines with such frequency she could navigate the ships blindfolded. Waterfield and her sister did homework at bolted-down lounge tables and slept in between rows of seats. Home was elusive in part because Waterfield’s mother performed on the Southeast Alaska folk music circuit and because where the family landed largely depended on an eclectic cast of father figures and a grandmother who filled in the gaps.
When Waterfield and I met 10 years ago in the University of Montana’s MFA creative writing program, she felt both exotic and familiar. As a stoic little girl and the daughter of a single mother doing her best, I understood Keema’s point of view though the landscapes and backdrops of our stories couldn’t have been more different. My childhood felt anchored, stuck, and rooted in New York City. Waterfield was the flip side of a familiar coin, and she embodied confidence in motion with a marked lack of clinging.
Every Monday, our nonfiction workshop ate homemade soup and bread around Professor Judy Blunt’s dining room table. The first words I heard Waterfield read transported me to the Inside Passage through a scene where a winter storm tosses the ferry around. I was present with fifth-grade Waterfield as the boat windows went black, as she flitted among “green around the gills passengers” and “yelled into careless waters.” When Waterfield finds her sister — belly up and mouth breathing, casually passed out in between rows of chairs — Waterfield pushes aside a stack of books so she can snuggle in and sleep.
When I received my advance copy of Inside Passage, I was almost rabid for that chapter. That scene had lived in my bones for a decade and I felt like I needed to reread it before I could begin. I asked Waterfield to direct me straight to it and she obliged, “It’s the title chapter ‘Inside Passage.’” Our interview starts there.
JAIME STATHIS: Did you know when you wrote the essay “Inside Passage” during your MFA program that it would become the title chapter of your memoir?
KEEMA WATERFIELD: That is the first chapter where I thought, “Oh, here is the story.” I don’t think I would’ve written the book if I hadn’t written that essay because I went to school to focus on long-form journalistic narratives. But I’d written most of the chapter about my father, which was the first chapter I wrote, though I didn’t know it would be part of a book when I wrote it.
So Inside Passage started as a series of essays?
Yes, even when my publisher, Dede Cummings, first saw it, I was still aiming for a collection of essays. I loved Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, how she blended seriousness and levity, and the way she told her story in essay format, but you could pick up any chapter and read it on its own. I wanted to do that, but because we moved so often, it became challenging to keep it in that format. An essay that bounced between places and/or times made it hard for the reader to land and feel like they knew what was going on. It needed to have the through-line to tie together the times, the places, and the many people. That’s just part of living a nomadic life.
I have to say, I never got geographically lost, but I didn’t get a bit lost keeping the dads straight between your birth father and the various stepfathers and boyfriends. And now your mom has remarried one of the stepdads?
At one point, I thought about just numbering them, but that got confusing because some were stepdads and others boyfriends. I joked that I should have a photo of a cocktail napkin in the book — to simulate what happens in a bar — to explain how and where all the men were from. I thought it would be funny, but it probably wouldn’t be. And yeah, we “Parent Trapped” my mom and C. A. into getting married again!
You write with exquisite detail, and I was right there with you sleeping with my nose inches away from the roof of the bus while your stepfather simultaneously blasted a baseball game and the Allman Brothers. I felt cold, wet, and lonely but also brave, fearless, and tenacious. I’m not sure exactly what the question is, but you lived through a lot of discomfort.
It’s an experience, I think, that people don’t have, which is why it was a story to tell. Because ultimately, every chapter is a story I find myself telling when people ask about my life.
Were you able to write the story you wanted to tell?
I started writing into the absence of my father, and I realized that what I’d found was the presence of my mom. I didn’t realize until working with the editors and charting the tension of the book — although I’d already written the dedication to my mom — that this was a mother-daughter love story. It’s also a coming-of-age memoir. There’s also a lot of place and placelessness, and it happens across the state — there are so many themes there — but really when I suddenly saw it as a story of how my mother and I come together and go apart and come back together, that changed my perspective on what I was writing. I don’t think it changed the writing itself, but it changed the way I felt when I sat down with my revisions.
As a child, you were exposed to so many adult experiences, and when looking back, you acknowledge the “fault logic of a child” as you try to make sense of it. This happens in the first 30 pages, so you set the reader up nicely for what’s to come, but at that point I found myself asking, “Is this a book about forgiveness, grief, or acceptance?”
Like I said, I wanted to bring levity to this story similar to Haven Kimmel or David Sedaris, and I wanted to write humor essays, but I couldn’t make it work with the subject and in my voice.
Actually, I think you did. You infused enough humor into the story that I never felt burdened by the emotional weight of it. I believe this is one of the most beautiful things about memoir — going into it the reader knows you survived, so we don’t have to wonder about that part. But was it hard navigating what to include and what to leave out?
I love this question. My push-pull was that in my life I don’t spend every moment thinking of myself as a survivor, but that’s because I have all the layers of the stories with me and I’m walking around with them every minute. I tried leaving out the really hard parts, but without them the story didn’t inform who I was as I was growing on the page. The hardest scenes to write and relive wound up so being so necessary in understanding the choices that I make and the choices the people around me are making. I wanted to write those so the story was real and full, but I also didn’t want to write a trauma story because that’s not what I think my actual story is. I wanted to show the humor and the light and enjoyment of it, too.
In shaping the story, the only things I pulled out of the manuscript happened after I focused the intention on keeping it around the mother-daughter love story theme.
It sounds like life in rural Alaska in the 1960s when your mom was growing up was pretty rugged both emotionally and physically. It’s hard to imagine your mother as a five-year-old living on the homestead with her abusive older brothers while her mother worked in Anchorage all week. They lived without heat or electricity, and your mother was “toting buckets of water, stoking the fire, laundering their clothes and cooking over the wood stove, all while bussing an hour into the city for school and back out, daily.”
Those parts were challenging to process, but it also helped foster compassion and understanding both for your mother as well as for your grandmother, who made her own difficult choices to support her family.
It’s tricky writing about people you love who have made choices that hurt you. I think it’s the greatest challenge of writing a memoir, if you’re writing about your family in particular. Allowing them to show themselves on the page is the best way to honor who they are. I didn’t want the story to color the people.
How long did it take you to write Inside Passage?
I had a solid draft five years ago when my daughter, Izzy, was born, but that was before I had a book deal. I’ve spent another five years working on it, but it was scattered and in bursts of time. I did an entire revision on my phone over Izzy’s head when she was a newborn while she was breastfeeding.
Ha! It’s clear that you learned at a young age how to do hard things. Moving to Anchorage — basically on your own — at age 16, to live with Zach, an older brother from your father who you barely knew. It was exhausting to think of you getting up at 6:00 a.m. to bus across the city to school, then working at the hot dog stand and starting your homework at 11:00. I was so excited when you ran into your old friend, Alexis, from a folk festival years prior, and how you moved in with her and her parents. It must’ve felt like whiplash to be with that family that you describe as “normal, normal, normal.”
Alexis is a force for good. She insisted I move into their big house with them and enroll in her school. She is the biggest-hearted, most loving and dedicated friend that a person could be lucky enough to have. She’s principled and kind, and she’s not afraid to bring strangers into her family. She’s still doing that!
Malcolm and Cindy are Alexis’s parents, and I don’t know who I would’ve been if they hadn’t come into my life at that time. I named my son Malcolm. If my daughter, Izzy, was a boy, she would’ve been named Malcolm, so as soon as we found out our second child was a boy we knew what his name would be.
I’ve been a daddy-less girl my whole life, and Malcolm was one who came and has always loved me unconditionally and seen me where I am. And that is what I would hope for my son, that he’ll be able to love unconditionally and see people where they are.
Going back to your mother, I don’t know how she did it, how she managed three kids plus working and going to school.
I don’t know either! I think we got by on some sort of grace. I can’t answer that question because I don’t remember very much in the way of childcare. I think she was able to be more aloof and inclined to let us just figure it out and take care of each other. One of the aspects of childhood trauma is that it shapes how you parent.
Do you feel like becoming a mother helped you better understand your mother?
I think I’d done a lot of that work in writing this book, before I became a mother, but then once I had a child, what I felt more than anything was the sensation of being a mother and child at the same time. I could feel what it felt like to be a kid in my mom’s arms but also being the mom holding the kid.
I think the words “doing the best I can” a lot, and I don’t know if they’re my mother’s words or my words — maybe they’re my therapist’s words — but I challenge myself with it as a way to check in with what sometimes feels like overwhelm. I think a lot of what happened in my childhood had to do with overwhelm and lack of support.
Back then, nobody was talking about what it was like to be a single mom, and I think my mother felt pressured to be a not-single mom as fast as possible because everyone doubted she could make it unless she had a partner supporting her.
When your mom leaves your dad, who you call Dude, she takes you and your sister and goes to live with her mother and brothers. You wrote,
Mom had finally escaped the chaos of Dude’s home, only to find herself once again up to her elbows in dishes and laundry and the business of raising her younger siblings, plus now her own children, and she couldn’t be sure from day to day whether she’d sailed into safe harbor or a recurring nightmare.
It was brutal to watch her repeat the cycle, but it exemplifies “doing the best you can” with the caveat “with what you have.”
It’s hard to describe what a small town in Southeast Alaska feels like. It is the most cut off you’ve ever been, really, and unless you own a plane or a boat, you’re on an island with the same people you’ve known your entire life, which at that time was between 400 and 1,000 people, depending on the town. You didn’t have other examples of people showing you a way out. They didn’t have the internet, and there was nobody to ask, “What else can I do?” There wasn’t support and there weren’t opportunities.
I have a lot of empathy for that.
I noticed you only used the word isolation once, which is impressive, because the essence of isolation is strong throughout the book.
I think a lot of what I was working through in the story was understanding my mom’s choices and understanding what led her to the place where she was when she was parenting me. And that helped me attach to her challenges and gave me a lot of insight into what she intended for her life and how that compared to the actual choices she was given.
Although reading Inside Passage was moving and emotional, I didn’t cry until the very end of the acknowledgments, where you tell us your mother stayed up all night to finish an early draft of your story. You listen to her laughing and crying through the walls, and in the morning she says, “It’s beautiful. It’s hard. It’s true. You don’t need my permission to tell it. But you have it, if you want it.”
Yeah, that part makes me cry, too.